Hollywood comedies don’t generally require keystones, but Observe and Report—a film so stubborn and bizarre that it might more accurately be termed an anti-comedy—goes the extra mile, offering a single moment that encapsulates its appeal, or lack thereof, for most viewers. Roughly midway through the film, its ostensible hero, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), applies for a position on the local police force. His nemesis, Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), looks forward to informing Ronnie that he failed the psych evaluation, and one of Harrison’s colleagues (Ben Best), also stoked for the humiliation, hides nearby so he can eavesdrop. But as Harrison proceeds to merrily crush Ronnie’s dream of being a real cop, the colleague abruptly emerges from his alcove and leaves the room, explaining apologetically on his way out that he “thought this would be kinda funny, but actually it’s just kinda sad.”
Touché. If you’re looking for a comedy that seems as if it ought to be funny and yet decidedly isn’t, look no further than Observe and Report, which may superficially resemble Paul Blart: Mall Cop but actually plays more like an unholy cross between Taxi Driver and Freddy Got Fingered. Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt, who views himself without irony as the protector of all that is good and decent between Foot Locker and the Gap, isn’t the usual benign man-child found at the center of movies like this—he’s a budding psychopath who’s fast losing his grip on reality, frequently in ways designed to make your laughter catch in your throat. This is an ugly, aggressive, almost sadistic picture, and while I personally found it a singularly unpleasant experience—hence the low rating—I must confess to a certain degree of grudging respect for its writer-director, Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way). For better or worse, he’s taking no prisoners.
Hill’s pugnacious sensibility informs every aspect of Observe and Report. Despite being a portly, bullet-headed, no-account nightmare—Rogen somehow divests himself of all his inherent likability—Ronnie has not one but two love interests, ardently pursuing skanky cosmetics salesgirl Brandi (Anna Faris) while being shyly pursued in turn by the pretty girl with the broken leg (Collette Wolfe) who offers him free coffee every morning. One of these romances results in Ronnie pumping away over an apparently comatose young woman whose head rests on a vomit-caked pillow; the other inspires him to storm the Toast a Bun kitchen and beat the holy crap out of his paramour’s abusive manager (Patton Oswalt). It’s not even a question of which woman we’d like to see him end up with, since either pairing would raise the horrific possibility of Ronnie’s defective genes being passed on to some poor innocent embryo.
Likewise, Ronnie’s obsession with capturing a pervert who’s been flashing women in the mall parking lot builds to a climax that seems expressly calculated to make you guffaw and recoil simultaneously. Again, I did much more recoiling than guffawing, but if your taste is at all adventurous, I’d encourage you to ignore the star rating and witness this oddball monstrosity for yourself. For one thing, what’s funny is notoriously subjective—the crowd at my screening was roaring at Ronnie’s antics, apparently not remotely as skeeved as I was by the sight of a virulent fascist goon patrolling his petty suburban fiefdom. More than that, though, Observe and Report, whether it works for you or not—as traditional comedy, as mordant satire, as postmodern alienation device—brings insane ambition to a genre that could sorely use some. You may not enjoy this movie, but you will never ever forget that you saw it.